Cape Town is a dream holiday for adventurous foodies and wildlife lovers
Named among the world’s top food and drink destinations in 2016, Cape Town is blessed with a vibrant restaurant scene, spectacular scenery and countryside bursting with vineyards. Matthew Williams visits this blossoming creative melting pot
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2017
The theory is that if you fall asleep on a night flight somewhere over Europe then when you arrive in Cape Town, South Africa, the suitably relaxed traveller will be as fresh as a daisy – such is the miniscule time difference.
When your driver then whisks you away from the international airport, along roads lined by township shacks and onto sunbathing penguins however, it’s easy to start questioning whether you ever woke up at all.
How’s that for a start to a magical five-day mystery tour? Stood on some rocks, clearing bleary eyes with an ocean view and pinching yourself at the sight of black and white pranksters bounding into the sea like overexcited British backpackers. Located in the town of Betty’s Bay, Stony Point Nature Reserve is home to one of the largest successful breeding colonies of African Penguin in the world.
While penguins are great, whale watching is surely fascinating at the right time of year, hiking up Lion’s Head to look over Table Mountain sounds thrilling and shark diving has the potential to place you on the other side of the dining table, it’s Cape Town and the surrounding area’s booming epicurean experience that’s the real pull for this avid foodie – that and British Airway’s new direct flights from Gatwick.
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From sprawling vineyards and fruit farms in the surrounding countryside to the city being named number one in a 2016 Conde Nast Traveller poll to find the best food destination in the world, this is a thriving metropolis with plenty to boast of on its table.
A native delicacy
With that hype firmly in the bag, I enjoy my very first taste of a South African delicacy – and it turns out to be a marine mollusc. The alluringly named abalone is far tastier than it might sound and we enjoy our dishes beneath the Natural History Museum-like skeleton of a Southern Right Whale (‘Suzi’) at the Great White House restaurant in Kleinbaai, with a selection of local ‘cool climate’ wines from Lomond Wine Estate (if you took a fairly committed hike to the south of their vineyard, it wouldn’t be that long before you walked off the southern most tip of the continent).
Our first evening finds us at the magical, Grootbos – an Afrikaans word meaning ‘big forest’ and, fortunately for this piece, also a five-star private nature reserve.
Nestled between mountains and sea near Gansbaai, we enjoy an open-top 4x4 tour of the fynbos plains followed by a glass of Méthode Cap Classique (MCC is South Africa’s ‘Champagne’) with spectacular views of the sun setting over the sea. Dinner is served outside on a private terrace; there’s fairy lights in the trees and sommelier Eben Bezuidenhout and executive chef Benjamin Conradie to walk us through an evening that feels truly once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully not!).
The next morning, a trip along the Hermanus Wine Route to Creation Wines prolongs the dream sequence. Vineyards sprawl in every conceivable direction with rocky outcrops occasionally and dramatically shattering the regimented vines. Artworks frame the entrance to Creation Wines and the place breathes with passion and creative flair.
Conversation during our eight-course tasting menu (yup, with wine) turns to home and Michael O’Hare’s Michelin starred restaurant, The Man Behind The Curtain in Leeds, which now stocks the winery’s tipples. It’s a small world after all.
Tale of two cities
Day three of our road trip reminds us of the well-documented, grittier side of life. It’s hard not to notice that, while much may have changed, there is still a divide that will need generations to soften.
Things start with a tour of the vibrant former township, Bo-Kaap (known as the Malay Quarter due to its historic roots). These days, it’s film-set inspiring technicolour beneath the dazzling blue sky.
It’s here, in an unassuming two-storey, violet-painted property that we meet the wonderfully acerbic Faldela Tolker for one of her popular Cooking with Love classes. Your humble correspondent is quickly renamed ‘Surfer Boy’ and put on curry duty, while the rest of the group tussle with samosas and roti flatbreads. It’s a colourful way to enjoy lunch and delve into the melting-pot of Cape Malay cuisine – and, as far as I’m aware, our entire group survived to tell the tale.
Lunch is walked off with a street art tour of the revived Woodstock suburb (an edgily artsy area where people bemoan plans for gentrification), before we head for the township of Philippi – and arguably my favourite moment of the trip.
Theatre in the Backyard comprises a startling one man show, directed by Mhlanguli George and performed by actor Lamla Ntsakub in the backyard of a township dwelling. We’re welcomed warmly by the protagonists and, following the show, settle down with the creative forces for a plate of chicken wings, spicy chakalaka stew, savoury doughnut¬like vetkoeks and a glass of home-made ginger beer. They dream of performing in England and the idea and execution is brilliant.
Life of luxury
Our final two days and nights are at the dazzling One&Only resort, with its apartment-sized rooms, sparkling lagoons and Table Mountain views.
To ensure hearty appetites, we explore the city by stand-up paddle boards and bikes for a morning with Escape + Explore Africa – passing city-living seals at the V&A Waterfront on route.
Chatting while we travel, you get the impression that new restaurants and foodie shops are springing up quicker than even the locals can keep track of. From a burgeoning craft beer offering to secret gin bars accessed via closed chocolate shops and the brilliantly named baconporium, Bacon on Bree (Street), creative and passionate businesses are creating a ‘hipster’ foodie explosion here just as they are in London – although maybe with a few less beards.
Leading that charge is British-born chef Luke Dale-Roberts, who is said to be the closest thing Cape Town has to a rock star chef – his Test Kitchen is ranked in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. He also happens to own a number of other establishments in the area and we enjoy an excellent lunch in his extremely classy The Shortmarket Club.
The city has firmly caught the attention of the world’s foodies too, with renowned sushi chef Nobu Matsuhisa establishing Africa’s only outpost of Nobu at the One&Only resort. We’re lucky enough to enjoy a few courses with the great man, and my chopsticks are on their best behaviour as he shares tales from his growing empire.
Suffice to say, reality seems to have taken a short holiday again: “Am I really sat here next to a world famous chef while just days ago I was eating chicken wings in a township and gastropods under a whale called Suzi?!”
Fortunately, Table Mountain, that comforting, ever-present totem brings me back to my senses. One of the world’s new seven wonders of nature, a trip to its 3,500-plus feet summit offers the perfect opportunity for contemplation.
Below, a sprawling city that is embracing its multicultural spirit and blossoming with creation and inspiration caresses its coastline and the expansive ocean beyond. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, which makes you truly dare to dream.
• British Airways flies two times a week between Gatwick and Cape Town. Prices start from £535 return, including all taxes and charges, for travel in World Traveller. Visit ba.com/capetown or call 0344 493 0787.
• For more information about South African Tourism, visit southafrica.net
• For more information about One&Only, visit oneandonlyresorts.com